• Coach Kristen, MD

Are emotions really stored in the hips?

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Last night I went to a yin yoga class. I love my yoga studio, and as part of my self-care routine recently, I've been indulging myself in almost daily yoga classes at Raffa Yoga and Urban Sweat. Had you asked me two years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea that yoga was important in heath maintenance. The mere thought of daily yoga would have distressed me, as I would have pictured all the to'dos I could cross off my list in the time it takes to sit in a yoga class ... and breathe? I breathe anyway!

All that changed during my last year of medical school. I was under more stress than I'd ever been in my life. My health was in jeopardy due to a mold problem at my apartment, my housing situation was unstable for the same reason, and my career was in jeopardy because I had to get a job and stop going to medical school rotations to solve the housing issue. I literally could not think because of the stress. I'd waste hours nonproductively, sometimes just staring into space, unable to think clearly enough to mobilize myself to solve my problems. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. In search for a solution, I came across the book The Body Keeps the Score.

The Body Keeps the Score

In this book, the author discusses the body's reaction to stress. As far as the body is concerned, my stress over my career is no different from the stress of a primitive human encountering a tiger that would like to make a meal of her. Stress evokes a physiologic response in the form of stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body to do one of two things - to fight, or to flee. A flood of catecholamines is released from the adrenal glands. The respiratory rate increases to provide the body with more oxygen, and the heart rate increases to circulate more oxygen rich blood. Blood is shunted away from nonessential organs, such as those in the digestive system, to parts of the body needed to fight or flee - such as the muscles.

If you can't fight or flee whatever survival threat you are faced with, the freeze response is invoked. The system essentially shuts down and a flood of endogenous opioids floods the brain. It is the body's last ditch attempt to protect an organism facing imminent death from overwhelming pain. This response to stress originates in the limbic system, a very deep and primitive part of the brain which is concerned with survival.

What does all this have to do with my weird inability to think? Higher level cognitive functions, which originate in the more superficial parts of the brain, suffer in the face of such sympathetic overactivation. I wondered if this might be what was going on with me.

The author of the book explains that repeated or extreme stress becomes physiologically and anatomically recorded in the nervous system, in the form of a limbic system that is increasingly reactive to stress. Just as playing the piano makes you a better piano player, activating your nervous system makes you "better" at becoming stressed out - faster, and with less stimuli. Overcoming such insults to the body hence requires body-based therapies that invoke the parasympathetic system. This system is basically the opposite of the sympathetic system, allowing for rest and relaxation. Enter yoga.

Yoga to heal

It so happened that Keshava-Radha yoga was right down the street from where I was renting a room in a friend's house. I didn't know what else to do, so I went. I will never forget the magic of that humble studio. I'd taken yoga classes before, but they always seemed more focused on working out than mindfully quieting down. At Keshava-Radha yoga, I felt the pleasure of feeling my body relax and let go in a way I'd never felt before. Often, I'd cry - in the course of my daily life, my stress levels were too high for me to even recognize my own sadness. In yoga I was able to calm down enough to feel, to grieve. Words are not adequate to describe what I found in that studio. Sometimes I spent three hours a day there, because - well - I had to.

It's now almost two years later and yoga continues to play a major role in my life. I just went through a breakup, and have been in the studio daily since. Oddly I've been at peace and focused despite the breakup, which is quite unlike me before my yoga days. In fact, I haven't cried, and have felt quite free and happy, and in fact became a little prideful about it all.

Getting weird in swan

And then, last night, we did hip openers in my yin class. As we hung out in swan, I was surprised to feel myself growing restless and agitated. My mind jumped to painful memories of me and my ex. I got sad. I got mad. I adjusted my position. I couldn't focus. I felt like I was failing at yoga. Then I reminded myself that's not possible. I wanted to get up; I wanted to get out of the studio so I could distract myself from the feelings. I didn't know where they were coming from and didn't want to feel them.

"Duh - its the hip openers"

When class finally ended, I sat on the couch putting on my boots, and my favorite Raffa staff member asked how class was. I told her. She said something like "Duh - that's because you did hip openers. People always get emotional when they do hip openers". Always the skeptic, I looked it up. And was fascinated by what I found. Check out the link below.

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